The Paley Center for Media, which has locations in both New York and LA, dedicates itself to the preservation of television and radio history. Inside their vast archives of more than 150,000 television shows, commercials, and radio programs, there are thousands of important and funny programs waiting to be rediscovered by comedy nerds like you and me. Each week, this column will highlight a new gem waiting for you at the Paley Library to quietly laugh at. (Seriously, it’s a library, so keep it down.
After his multi-episode arc on the last season of Louie, we all know that David Lynch is capable of comedy. That sounds like a backhanded compliment (or, to put it more accurately, an insult) but keep in mind that this guy is responsible for pulling some of the most disturbing and spookiest images out of his brain and putting them on the screen. The fact that he was able to parlay that into comedy is astounding and reflective of the amazing work that he and Louis collaborated on.
But what if that guy wrote a sitcom? What if the dude who gave us Mulholland Drive, Twin Peaks, and Blue Velvet wrote a sitcom? And then it aired on ABC in 1992? Meet On the Air.
The premise of the show is simple enough: it’s 1957 and ZBC, the Zoblotnick Broadcasting Company, is premiering a brand new TV show called “The Lester Guy Show” staring the fictional movie star Lester Guy and the incredibly dim-witted Betty Hudson. They are surrounded by a crazy staff who ensure that nothing can go right, and a bunch of scary executives who demand perfection. It’s a fun idea for a show, and while period pieces can be a tough sell on television, this could easily have been the 30 Rock or Newsradio of its day. But it wasn’t. And here’s why: it was completely bonkers.
After a kind of too long opening sequence of period establishing city shots set to morose sounding saxophone wailing, we are brought onto the set of the show-within-a-show and are introduced to our characters. There’s the director Valdja Gochktch, played by David Lander (best known as Laverne and Shirley’s Squiggy) who speaks in an impenetrable Ed Sullivan-like accent so thick that he has a young woman named Ruth Trueworthy following him around to translate. As this pair walks the hallways we see the traditional mainstays of behind the scenes shows: men moving sets, a line of chorus girls practicing their routine, a producer on the show sitting in a puddle of coffee, holding two mugs in his trembling hands, crying “My nerves! My nerves!” and a pair of conjoined twins wearing a two-necked sweater who snap their fingers in unison, chanting “Hurry up, hurry up, hurry up…” If the credit that read “Created by David Lynch and Mark Frost” didn’t already tell the audience that this show was going to be something different, the first two minutes of the program do a good job of informing them.
On the Air was a single camera program without a laugh track which, during this time, was very rare. The show makes a number of stylistic choices that set it apart from the rest of 1992 as well. The directing of the show itself doesn’t feel like a comedy. There are strange cutaways that alter the pacing of the show, deep focus shots that feature other characters doing weird dances, or acting strange in other ways in the far background. One character, named Blinky, who everyone thinks is blind and who is in charge of the live sound effects machine, has his backstory explained to the home audience in an unorthodox way. In the first moment he appears on screen, an arrow appears above his head, and a previously unseen narrator tells us that he suffers from Bozman’s Simplex that allows him to see 26.52 times as much as we do. We are then shown a simulation of what Blinky sees which is the stage in front of him with the image of Santa Claus, a stuffed dog, and a weird doll glowing and floating in the air.
Recently ABC made some waves when then launched their own “Save Happy Endings” campaign, effectively asking the audience to stop them from canceling their own show. Well it would appear that they tried a similar tactic 21 years earlier before the premiere episode of On the Air finished. As the show went to its first commercial break, before the actual ads started, the network anticipated what the home audience was thinking and tried their best to answer their concerns. “You’re probably asking yourself,” said an announcer over footage from the show, “is this the strangest thing I’ve ever seen? Don’t go away! It’s about to get fabulously funny.” First of all, the 10-second ad shows the desperation the network was probably feeling when they watched this pilot. “We bought a sitcom from the creator of Twin Peaks. I don’t know what we were expecting, but we paid a lot of money for it so watch it, okay? You like Twin Peaks!” Then there’s that last sentence: “it’s about to get fabulously funny,” which, intentionally or not, is saying that it hasn’t been funny yet for the first half, but it will be.
This lack of confidence no doubt comes from the circumstances in which the show was created. Lynch and Snow sold the idea to ABC while Twin Peaks was at the peak of its powers and the pair was a hot commodity in the world of television. They made the pilot, it tested really well and six more episodes were produced. In the book Lynch on Lynch the creator describes what happened when it was time to schedule the program: “During that time everything was going belly up with Twin Peaks, and there wasn’t any support from ABC for this show at all. They really hated it.” So ABC put the show on in June, during a time in which you would never premiere a new show during the summer, and gave it the timeslot of Saturday at 9:30, ensuring that nobody would ever see it. Seven episodes of the show were produced, three of which aired in America.
On the Air is still without a DVD release despite the fact that it has achieved cult status from the “created by” credit alone. However, because of its cult status, along with Mystery Science Theater 3000, this show is one of the earliest I can remember seeing available for download on the Internet. Today the episodes can be found on YouTube, albeit in digital copies sourced from home VCR recordings. You can watch the pilot episode below and see just how weird network TV could get in 1992.